Since the very early days of this blog (way back in 2002) I realized that it was important to take pictures of the food I was writing about. My pictures have gotten a bit better since then (not hard given how bad they were when we started) but the value of the pictures is the same. Essentially, using only words to describe food (at least my words) just leaves something to be desired. And of course, even pictures + words isn’t completely optimal but we’re still working on the technology that lets you taste and smell the food via the blog. (More on that at another time.) Tastingmenu was among the first 10 food blogs on the internet. Today there are thousands. Given the explosion of food blogs and the essential nature of pictures in terms of describing food online you’d think that chefs and restaurant owners would be getting more savvy about food bloggers documenting their meals. It turns out this may not be the case, at least in terms of the sample of one I experienced recently.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently checked out Joe Doe, a small adorable restaurant in NYC. When the food started coming, I took out my camera and started snapping pictures. I usually start out by taking a shot of the menu just so I remember the names of all the dishes I’m about to eat. When it comes to using a flash, I learned early that it basically ruins pictures. I have a bounce flash now, but I don’t want to disturb other diners. I usually only use my flash for that first menu shot. Then I’m all natural light, which unfortunately is usually not very much. Sure enough, even though I’d shot several pictures of the snack that we got before we ordered, it was the flash when I took the menu shot that got the Chef’s attention. Turns out, at least with Chef Joe, this was not a good thing.
Out of the hundreds of restaurants at which I’ve photographed my meal, I’ve only been asked not to take pictures six times (and on more than one occasion the request has come after I’ve already taken the shots – too late!). If the staff of the establishment asks me why I’m taking pictures, I usually try to deflect with a semi-truth, and tell them I really love to document everything I eat – which is true! If they tell me not to take pictures, I beg a bit. If that doesn’t work I usually let them know that I write a food blog, and that I only write about food I really like. So if I am not into my meal, they shouldn’t worry that I’m going to write something shitty, though what that has to do with whether I take pictures or not is not clear to me. I can write about the food with or without pictures. In a couple of cases, my little flowchart of responses has gotten folks to change their mind. In a couple it hasn’t. Chef Joe, through his patient and nervous front of the house staff stuck to his guns and said no.
In my experience, there are four main reasons why a chef might not want diners taking pictures of his or her food. I think three of them have some validity:
- The photographer will be taking pictures of other diners who didn’t necessarily come to dinner to be featured on a blog. This makes perfect sense to me. And I’m always happy to only take pictures of the food and restaurant and make sure to be respectful of other diners. I’ve even been asked to not photograph staff, and I’m fine with that as well. I’m not there to do a fashion or gossip shoot. I just want pictures of the food.
- The flash, or mechanics of taking the pictures will ruin the dining experience for other diners. I agree that a flash going off every couple of minutes at a table is distracting and I think it’s reasonable to ask a photographer not to use flash (or maybe just once to shoot the menu) so that it’s not distracting other diners. That said, I think if the photographer is discreet, and not making a big scene, it almost never affects other patrons of the restaurant except that they sometimes get curious and ask what you’re doing.
- The food won’t look good/the photos are going to suck. I get this concern, but you have to imagine, if the food is good enough to serve to a customer, then it’s good enough to photograph. And I realize that some bloggers’ shitty cameras or bad technique may make the food look worse, but c’est la vie. To be fair to Chef Joe at Joe Doe, he did offer to let me set up an appointment to come and photograph the food properly. I might have even taken him up on it if I lived in NYC, but I don’t. I live in Seattle and my time is limited. On the one hand, I don’t think most food bloggers have the time to come back for a separate photo shoot. On the other hand, if you really like a restaurant, and want to write about it, why not take the time to go do a separate photo shoot.
- Someone will see the pictures and “steal” the chef’s ideas/concepts/recipes. I’m not sure how to react to this other than to say… bullshit. I don’t buy for a second that somehow photography of your food is going to result in someone cloning your food and stealing your ideas. If you’re ideas are really that novel, most chefs won’t even recognize them as such because they’re so focused on following the latest trends. And besides, a photo is not food. Most great things are 10% conception, and 90% execution. Let other chefs try to steal your ideas, they’ll screw up the execution anyway so you have nothing to worry about.
In the middle of my negotiations with the chef, which took on a middle east peace conference vibe since all of it was done through two servers and the bartender (who were all very nice), I got the impression that the chef didn’t have a soft spot for bloggers. Honestly, I kind of get that. Bloggers are annoying. Present company included. But, tough shit. This annoying gaggle of self-documenting food lovers is only going to get more prevalent and more prolific over the coming years. Best to find a way to accommodate them.
My recommendation to chefs and other restaurant folks on how to deal with someone taking pictures of your food is to let them. Our society is only going to become more transparent, not less, best to adapt to the reality now. As annoying as they may be, there’s no reason to piss off bloggers. These days, many of them get more readers than the reviewer from the local paper (who in my opinion is just as annoying if not moreso). If you notice a diner taking pictures:
- Thank them for being so interested in the food. Tell them you take it as a compliment. Cause it is.
- Ask them if they wouldn’t mind not using a flash and not photographing the other diners. This is a reasonable request, and said properly, and in the context of encouraging them to take pictures of the food will almost always be received well.
- Offer to let the blogger take some behind the scenes shots in the kitchen. Cooking is always great to photograph, especially as more texture for a post about the food itself. The blogger will feel special and be appreciative.
- Offer to set up time with the blogger to come back and shoot the food when light is better and not during service. I would recommend doing this not instead of letting them shoot their meal but in addition. The blogger will appreciate it, and if they take you up on it, you’ll end up with better pictures on their blog. If they don’t… then they don’t.
Most importantly, chefs should think of bloggers/photographers as super customers. In other words, these are regular customers who are so passionate about your food that they want to tell the world about it. They can be your secret army of fans, evangelizing your restaurant and your food to everyone they know, and many they don’t through their web sites. And yes, some will say crappy things. But there are regular customers who will leave unhappy as well. The question is not one of perfection, it’s about the percentages. It’s true that some diners may rely on one lousy blog post to skip your establishment, but most savvy diners who are already taking the time to research their meal will try to triangulate by reading multiple write-ups. If your food is good, they’ll find out. And you may even have a blogger to thank.